24 February 2020

On the need for politics #nlpoli

Politics [is] the art of pursuing common interests through... active listening, advocacy, public persuasion, compromise and negotiation.

William Ford Coaker,
the father of the Commission
The people from Newfoundland and Labrador quoted in the Globe and Mail on Friday described the problem facing the province today.

We are not talking about chronic overspending, an aging population that will need more health care, or the impact of Muskrat Falls.

The problem is the shared attitude among the province’s opinion leaders  - the ones quoted by the Globe and many more besides - that *any* solutions to the province's financial problems are bleak and politically unacceptable.

Here are the bits from the Globe and Mail piece, ironically by some guy named Greg Mercer, a name he shares with the current Premier’s chief of staff:
  • Political science professor Amanda Bittner: “You’re going to be making some tough choices that nobody is going to be happy with, and it’s probably going to be miserable.”
  • Lawyer and cable television show host Melissa Royle Critch described the problems as “daunting” and said the debt problem was “insurmountable.”
  • Progressive Conservative leader Ches Crosbie: “We are in a death spiral.”
  • Outgoing Premier Dwight Ball said that borrowing to cover continued deficits will be the major challenge facing his successor.
  • Economics professor Scott Lynch said,” [Dealing with the financial problem is] going to be a nasty situation. These cuts will be extremely painful.”
We can add to that finance minister Tom Osborne who recently dismissed out of hand a proposal to put the government’s liquor corporation in the private sector, like Alberta did more than 20 years ago.  The result would create jobs,  preserve provincial tax revenues, and bring in a couple of billion dollars in the sale.

But Osborne, like all the others leading the province will brook no change in anything.

They simply want someone else to pay the bills.
You cannot make this stuff up

Indeed, we can add to Newfoundland and Labrador’s problem the entire current Liberal cabinet and caucus that endorsed a plan to increase spending at the rate of inflation and hope that provincial revenues would grow at a rate that would close the deficit.  They started in 2016 with a plan to make some efforts at cuts to spending but abandoned it a year later in the face of overwhelming public opposition.

It's not like these people are thinking too clearly about this stuff, either.  They *know* staying on the current course is not an option. Yet, they refuse to alter course.  Osborne became finance minister in 2017 expressly to abandon the original government plan to reduce spending.  He did his job.  He also went looking to Ottawa for more money, another key element of the consensus among opinion elites in the province.  We need a bail-out from Ottawa. 

Politicians aren't the only ones who are confused.  Last week, the editors at The Telegram called for “real, live austerity”.  They called this a “new approach” without noticing for a second that this as the same name for Danny Williams’ plan from 2003 that, in practice, created the current financial mess facing the government.  Nor did they notice that Dwight Ball also used the term "New Approach" to describe *his* plan to clean up the Williams mess before he hit on calling it The Way Forward.

And in the process of calling for this third new approach - “real” austerity - the Tellytorialist dismissed the Liberal’s modest 2016 effort as “death by a thousand cuts.”  Everyone else called it real austerity even though it called for increased public spending and the accumulation of billions in new debt over seven years.  Such is the swamp of thought among the local intelligentsia.

In the search for a “reasonable” solution to dealing with the government’s financial problems, a recent full-day conference organized by the university’s economics department turned up neither a solution nor reason.  As with an earlier session looking for a way to control health care costs, presenter after presenter offered either nothing new or promoted increased spending. 

A few people in the audience kept bringing up “democratic reform”.  This idea is fairly popular in some circles.  This could be a workable idea, except that “democratic reform” means different things to different people, apparently. 

Dwight Ball thought it meant slashing the number of people in the House of Assembly and putting the survivors to work on more committees.  He did the first one and balked at the second.  New Democrats' idea of reform is to rig the voting system so they can get more people in the legislature without having to say anything that actually appeals to more voters. Another bunch want to eliminate political parties.  They have formed a political party to do that. 

You cannot make this up.

A few proponents of “democratic reform” think that we must get politics out of government decisions. There are a great many of you reading this who will nod your head in agreement.

A lot of people in Newfoundland and Labrador are saying just those words or something very close to them in meaning.  Like the former chief executive of the offshore industries association at the economics conference or the political scientists with a podcast named after a comedy troupe.  

They aren’t joking when they talk about ideas that would get politicians and politics out of political decisions. Someone challenged the podco-people on Twitter the other day to do us all the courtesy of telling us what *they* meant by democratic reform.  Now for a group apparently eager for dialogue, debate, discussion and all the other wonderful things they say are missing from public life in Newfoundland and Labrador, they did something rather odd in response to this request.  They refused to discuss it.

Not my place, said one of them, quite emphatically.

And the head of the political science department at the university chimed in to defend them against the impertinence of such a question, let alone the expectation that they should tell us what they mean by their words so that we may – if nothing else – understand what they have in mind. Those calling for discussion and debate refuse to debate and discuss as they clamour to remove politics from politics. 

You cannot make this stuff up.


The Authoritarian Impulse

We have seen this before in Newfoundland and Labrador.  In the 1920s, a consensus quickly emerged in the leading groups that the country could best deal with its financial problems by abandoning democracy in one way or another.  As others were trying one form of constitutional dodge – like today’s talk of a coalition - William Coaker, head of the fisherman’s union floated the idea in 1925 of elected a 10-member committee to run the country.

In a speech to members of his union, Coaker proposed the Roman Catholic districts would elect three members, the west and Conception Bay districts three more and the northern districts – none of which included Labrador – would elect three more.  The nine elected commissioners would pick a 10th member to be prime minister.  The public would learn of measures only after they had been undertaken.  This would go one for a decade.
“Such a policy pursued for ten years, “Coaker told them, “would produce reforms, establish industries, procure retrenchment, and place the fishing industry on a sound, business-like basis. It would cut out graft, reduce the Civil Service list to its proper proportions, dispense for a period with the animosities and bitterness of party strife and permit the country to concentrate upon vital matters that await solution, without having before its eyes day by day, as now, the spectre of the voters turning them out of office, because graft was limited or jobs and pickings were unobtainable, or what the owners of inferior fish would do with their vote and influence in the event of being graded inferior by the proper inspection.”
So much of Coaker’s complaints of politics at the time will sound familiar today. He blamed parties and politicians who were too busy in buying off the public to stay in office.   His solution for them was anti-democratic entirely, even if, in 1933, Coaker would protest that the six member appointed commission was not what he had in mind.

Coaker’s idea is also spectacularly naïve.  He believed, for example, that the whole scheme would wind up magically when, at the end of a decade, the commission of dictators would voluntarily disband. Most of all, though, Coaker was naïve in his understanding of how the country’s political system worked.  He seems to have never given a thought to the idea that - since the country voted regularly in elections – the public approved of the way parties and politicians behaved.

What’s important to note, though, is that Coaker was in line with the rest of the people in the country’s leading groups at the time.  He had already reached the conclusion there was no salvation for the country except dictatorship of one kind or another. His solution to the country’s problems was structured along corporatist lines – Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Anglicans - in keeping with the country’s political culture that divided everything in politics among those groups.  

All of that is actually very similar to the way things are today in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The leading elements of society have already given up on running their own province.  What is spectacularly different between the two times is that these days Newfoundland and Labrador is financially not in the crisis of the late 1920s. 

It has plenty of resources at its disposal, a highly educated population, plenty of room to change its spending, a highly diversified economy, and the backstop of a federal government that will provide some – but not all - of the financial aid needed.

And yet there is not a politician, an editorial writer, a celebrity of any sort, a university professor, or any leading person in the society who will state that a self-governing people worthy of the name ought to look after their own affairs. 

The people who only a few years ago spoke of independence, of autonomy,  and of legitimate aspirations are these days only aspirating cries for Uncle Ottawa to restore them to the status of  "have not" dependency on federal hand-outs.  They are strongly determined only to avoid having to bear the responsibility of what their pride wrought. 

We can understand the decisions their forebears took in the 1920s. 

The intellectual and moral cowardice across Newfoundland and Labrador a century later is staggering to behold.  

That this movement to abrogate their responsibilities to their fellow citizens took root 70 years after the restoration of  responsible government is unfathomable.

Change?  Or more of the same?

The Liberal Party is about to start a contest to replace Dwight Ball as leader and Premier.

What will be most interesting in this context is to see whether either of the likely candidates – Andrew Furey and Dean MacDonald - will dare to discuss what is actually going on in the province and offer ideas about what we could do.

Certainly, the speed with which Furey is gaining the support of people like Tom Osborne suggests he will be very much a status quo kind of guy.  But we should wait to let the campaign unfold to see where either MacDonald or Furey goes and how they address the truly significant issues facing our province.

We do not need a holiday from democracy and politics as so many are calling for under the false name of democratic reform.

We need democracy.

And we certainly need politics:  identifying and pursuing common interests through active listening, advocacy, public persuasion, compromise and negotiation.

We need politics more now than ever .

Let us see if the Liberal Party leadership can restore politics to the province and, in the process, find the way for the province and its people back toward a bright and prosperous future.